Filed Under: Food Scares Seafood

Adding Our Brains to the Fish Debate

After years of public discussion, the good news about seafood and health has made its way up the government food chain. As we told you earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration is finally catching up with the scientific consensus about omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients in seafood. But unfortunately, some Texas state legislators still haven’t gotten the memo. Despite mounting evidence that avoiding seafood while pregnant poses significant health risks to unborn children, the Texas House has approved a bill that will encourage just that by requiring the display of the exaggerated FDA/EPA seafood advisory wherever fish is sold. This bad news comes on the same day that we weighed in with another government body that is moving in the direction of good science.
Responding today to the FDA’s invitation for comments on the draft report it released this winter about the risks and benefits of commercial fish consumption, we told the agency:

Evidence is mounting that the current advisory’s risk-only model of nutrition assessment is discouraging seafood consumption. The result, as National Institutes of Health researcher Dr. Joseph Hibbeln put it in 2007, is that the advisory “causes the harm that it was intended to prevent.”
The misinterpretation of the advisory by pregnant women is of particular concern. In the case of tuna—one of the most omega-3-rich fish—pregnant women who follow the advisory are unable to deliver sufficient omega-3 nutrients to the unborn child. According to one particularly robust study, the amount of canned tuna consumption required for a child in utero to avoid negative effects on brain development, and reap the cognitive advantages of omega-3 intake, is more than two cans per week. This is explicitly greater than what the advisory permits.

In other words, scaring pregnant women away from the fish counter with mercury warning signs (like the ones the Texas House has just green-lighted) presents more hazards to the unborn child than natural traces of mercury. As our “Tuna Meltdown” report showed, the “risk-only” approach to seafood nutrition assessment is dangerously outdated.
But if the FDA is waking up to the proven health benefits of eating fish, why isn’t this kind of scientific reflection taking place in the Texas House? 
Given that there still hasn’t been a single documented case of mercury poisoning associated with store-bought fish in the U.S., we can only think of one plausible reason. Activist groups like Oceana, Mercury Policy Project, and Sea Turtle Restoration Project — with a little help from Hollywood – are still drowning out seafood science with bogus mercury poisoning claims.
Why? To draw attention to coal-fired power plants, coral reef protection, sea turtle extinction, and other pet projects—none of which has much to do with naturally-occurring methylmercury, or with seafood safety.
Since Earth Day is nearly upon us, we’re expecting a new wave of public health malpractice from environmental activists tomorrow. Here’s hoping they find more productive ways to celebrate than panicking the public over a health food.

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